One of the observations frequently made about adolescence is the way the peer group takes over as a major influence on children’s learning, both for better and for worse. For teenagers the group sets the standard for the way to dress, speak and behave. Parents note with despair that the group has replaced them as the authority in all matters. A recent New York Magazine article on parents of teenagers notes that it’s adolescents who "make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us."
One of the observations frequently made about adolescence is the way the peer group takes over as a major influence on children’s learning, both for better and for worse. For teenagers the group sets the standard for the way to dress, speak and behave. Parents note with despair that the group has replaced them as the authority in all matters. A recent New York Magazine article on parents of teenagers notes that it’s adolescents who “make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us.”
In fact, much about adolescents is similar to 2-year-olds. The developmental task of both stages relates to self-identity. Two-year-olds are experiencing the sense of themselves as separate beings from their parents. Their defiance at times stems from the need to establish that fact. Saying “no” is a clear and powerful demonstration that you are a person in your own right. Children say “no” even when they mean “yes,” which is what often confuses parents. Their conflict, however, is that they are still dependent people who need and want their parents love and approval.
Establishing one’s own identity involves being different from one’s parents, a major purpose served by rebellion and defiance. Teenagers, too, struggle with the conflict between dependence and independence. Both adolescents and 2-year-olds are prone to some bravado about newly acquired skills and abilities. With 2-year-olds, however, their reach exceeds their grasp, the source of frustration and meltdowns. The problem is more challenging with adolescents, who often grow physically bigger than their parents, and may exceed parental skills, such as in the new technology.
A source of angst for parents of children in both groups is the feeling that authority has shifted away from them, in one instance to peers, in the other to teachers and other adults. Parents may be amused, and later annoyed, when they hear, “My teacher says,” or “That’s not the way my teacher does it.” Familiar to parents of teenagers may be the complaint, “All the kids in my class are allowed to stay out later.” From early on, children put you in touch with the feeling that you are destined to become obsolete.
Yet the group can prove to be an important forum for learning. This is often more apparent in the nursery school years. Many a child, who is resisting mom’s efforts at toilet training, has a change in attitude seeing what other children do during toileting times in nursery school. While observing in a class of not quite three year-olds, a little boy asked a mom who was still in class because of her child’s difficulty with separation, “Why you still here?” This child was setting what was the more usual level of expectation for this class, setting an example for the child in question.
There are many other ways in which a group, with children having different skills, and moving forward in different areas, can play a role in children’s learning. During adolescence, parents are more inclined to see the negative aspects of what children are learning from each other. The positive side, however, is that through the group children can explore different self-images and different ways of being, as they try to find out for themselves who they are, and who they want to be.
As parents, it helps when we are sure of our own values and standards for behavior.
We continue to be primary models for our children – even though they often seem to reject that model as they struggle to find their own way.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.